FATHER OF MERCY
This Shabbat we will be reciting an extra prayer before Ashrei called Av Harachamim “Father of Mercy.” Its origins lie in the wake of the First Crusade. Many Jewish communities in Germany were decimated as mobs found an outlet for their religious zeal in killing Jews before making their way to the Holy Land to wrest it from the Muslims. Thousands of men, women and children lost their lives in the communities of the Rhineland. Mainz, Worms, Speyer were ravaged over the course of a few weeks as the Crusaders made their way down Europe.
Most of the killing of the First Crusade took place during the spring, corresponding to the Jewish months of Nissan, Iyar and Sivan. The martyrs were commemorated in volumes known as a Memorbuch (Book of Remembrance). An anonymous author composed a communal memorial prayer, Av Harachamim, to be said in association with the recital of the names in the Memorbuch. The prayer was originally said on the Sabbaths between Pesach and Shavuot, when the massacres occurred. The prayer reflects the request to avenge the blood of those who had been killed. But as the late Chief Rabbi Hertz points out in his commentary: “Vengeance was prayed for – and left to G-d.”
As the Black Plague swept across Europe during the mid-fourteenth century, annihilating nearly half the population, Jews were often taken as a scapegoat. Many were accused of having brought about the plague and were persecuted and killed. As a result, many more names were added to the martyrs’ lists and Av Harachamim was recited on other Sabbaths as well.
Two main customs arose: to recite Av Harachamim on most Sabbaths of the year, unless it was a Shabbat of heightened festivity, or to recite it on just two Sabbaths of the year: the Shabbat before Shavuot representing the culmination of the First Crusade persecutions and the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, representing the culmination of the persecutions associated with the Black Death. It is the second custom that is practiced in the United Synagogue and today, after the personal memorial prayers, Av Harachamim (NS 426) will be said.
This prayer becomes particularly poignant as we reflect on what is still happening Ukraine. So many innocent people have already lost their lives in this conflict. Our synagogue prayers encompass our concerns for all innocent people, whoever, and wherever they may be. As we mourn the tragic loss of life of our martyrs centuries ago, we look forward, in the concluding words of Av Harachamim, to a time of “Al Ken Yarim Rosh – he will hold his head up high”, when all peoples will be able to enjoy peace and security.